—By Ayat Abourashed—
“What’s your complete name?”
“Ayat Abour…. Wait, are you Muslim?”
“Yes, I am.”
“But you don’t wear a headscarf…?”
“I was raised differently, and I’m not ready to wear it.”
“No. I don’t believe you. Prove it!”
Hi, I’m Ayat. I was born to two Egyptian Muslim parents and raised for most of my life in America. Growing up was hard. I was expected to live in America with Egyptian ideals and be a good Muslim. At the same time, I was also expected to fit in and be a true American. I would equate this to riding a bicycle — trying to get the right amount of balance on each side to actually move properly.
Well, I never learned how to ride a bike. And I sure as hell still haven’t mastered merging all of these cultures.
“Go make friends, but you can’t go to that sleepover. Major in whatever you want, but you should probably study some science. Oh you’re 21, but don’t actually go to bars — even if you don’t intend to drink. Be independent, but you shouldn’t really travel until you’re married. There is no compulsion in religion, but you can’t change your religion.”
This was my life. It was complicated and confusing. And I was so tired of it.
When I looked more into Fulbright, I thought Indonesia would be a good fit for my inbetweener self. I’d heard and read of Indonesians’ friendliness and tolerance. These factors plus the fact that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country made me hopeful. Maybe Indonesia is the place for me. Maybe there will be no more double standards for me. Maybe I will be accepted as a Muslim American.
The few days before I arrived to my majority-Muslim city in Indonesia, I was pretty eager. I was excited to finally see my madrasah (Islamic high school) and meet my fellow teachers. I imagined they would be just as eager to have a Muslim American ETA (English Teaching Assistant). When a few teachers picked me up from the airport, their enthusiasm was infectious. They took many selfies with me, started teaching me basic Indonesian words, told me I was beautiful, fed me fried rice and fried bananas…I couldn’t have been happier!
Then, I went to school. More selfies, more compliments, more food. And of course, many personal questions. Eventually, they asked a crucial* question: “What religion are you?”
Now, I imagine their internal reactions were the classic “gasp!” you see on TV. Their tones changed. And the conversation took a turn.
“But you don’t wear hijab. I thought you were Christian because you don’t wear a headscarf. If you don’t wear it, you’re not Muslim. You should wear it.”
I heard this each day at school for an entire week. And every day I had to explain that I’m American, I was raised by Egyptian Muslims, and that wearing hijab is a choice. A piece of fabric on my head proves nothing.
But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t an American Muslim to them. I was a bad Muslim.
Outside the bright green school walls, I met more and more people who demanded proof of my religion: “Say this verse of the Quran…. Oh, ok good. You are a Muslim.”
So what? So what if I don’t wear the hijab? So what if I know Muslim greetings? All this proves nothing, and I shouldn’t have to prove my religion. But here I am in Indonesia. Not as an American or Egyptian Muslim, but as an Indonesian Muslim.
So here I am. Being judged by Muslims who smoke, do drugs, drink, date, wear the hijab half of the day and take it off the other half…. And yet, I am still the bad Muslim.
I’m not the poster child for the perfect Muslim, but I don’t judge. Religion is a private matter. I do what I want when I want. I don’t call myself a good Muslim, but I am a Muslim.
So being an American Muslim isn’t the smooth sailing I thought it would be here… But I have met Muslim Indonesians here who don’t care what kind of Muslim I am, who actually celebrate the fact that I am an American Muslim. These are the people that make living here easier. These are the people who look past the lack of hijab. These are the people who respect my privacy when it comes to religion. These are the people who are proud to tell their friends and family that I’m a Muslim. These are my people.
People will continue to judge me, question me, and try to change me. But just as no one can force me to ride a bike, no one can force me to be someone else. I’ll keep on doing me.
*A note from the editors: In Indonesia, it is normal for someone to inquire about your religion soon after meeting you. All Indonesian citizens must ascribe to one of the country’s six recognized religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism). The state does not recognize agnosticism or atheism. All Indonesians have their religion listed on their official identity card, and their religion becomes part of their identity in bureaucracies and the national census.
Ayat Abourashed is an Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at MAN 2 Model Makassar in Makassar, South Sulawesi. She graduated from Purdue University in 2016 with a degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences. When she’s not teaching in her bright green school, she’s normally reading at some newly discovered coffee shop, sipping on some avocado juice.